WINTER ON THE MAAS
September to December 1944
‘It was our sixth war Christmas, but it was the view of everyone that it was the best of the six, which says much considering it was our first in the line.’
SUNDAY, September 17 saw the start of the ill-fated Market Garden operation. The plan was for British and American airborne troops to capture the bridges at Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem in Holland and hold them until 30 Corps could punch its way across them. Montgomery hoped the Allies could then pour into Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr, and end the war before Christmas. The task of 3rd Division was to widen the breach in the German lines opened by 30 Corps.
On September 18, 92nd LAA left Vatismesnil to head west, via Beauvais, Froissy, Warfusse, Abancourt, Albert, Bapaume, Cambrai, Valenciennes, Mons, Braine le Compte and Braine L’Alleux before reaching the Petit Broren neighbourhood of Louvain in Belgium. Their route skirted the battlefields and sombre cemeteries of an earlier generation on the Somme, and of an earlier age at Waterloo. On the way, food and ammunition were dropped by parachute.
A day later, 3rd Division forced its way across the Meuse-Escaut Canal and 92nd LAA followed up to protect the canal bridge at Lille St Hubert, deploying along the Heeze-Zomeren road. ‘After five weeks of quiet, we found the return to battle rather a shock,’ wrote Captain Almond. ‘Three of the advance party were wounded by bomb splinters in the concentration area and the main body arrived to find frantic digging in progress.’
Jim Holder-Vale recalled how, because of the supply difficulties around this time, the regiment was issued with captured German rations. ‘We had to get used to mainly tinned pork, which was quite tasty, and fresh vegetables in the shape of French beans which came in small, open-topped waxed cartons.
‘These were always a mystery to us, as we had nothing like them. Nobody wanted a large drum of honey, so I took it and enjoyed it over many weeks on Army biscuits. In place of our usual free issue of seven cigarettes a day we had German cigars, which were not very popular. But those of us that did smoke them began to smell like the German prisoners.’
The regiment next crossed the Dutch frontier near Hamont and defended the vitally important bridges over the s’Hertogenbosch Canal. 318 and 319 moved to the neighbourhood of Asten and Zomeren, while 317 went to Vaarsek via Weert with 8 Infantry Brigade.
At Weert on September 26, A Troop of 317 shot down a German raider in spectacular fashion. The troop was just pulling out from its positions protecting 76 Field Regiment when two ME 109s broke from the clouds and started low strafing attacks. Despite their Bofors being on the move, the troop opened fire and destroyed one of the attacking planes. ‘These were the first rounds fired by the regiment in over six weeks and success gave a great lift to morale,’ said the war diary.
The kill earned a special signal from the 3rd Division artillery commander, Brigadier Gerald Mears, congratulating the men on their alertness and good discipline. ‘To have hit such a fleeting target after weeks of inactivity is an achievement of which all concerned may be proud,’ he said.
The following day, the 92nd was established at Helmond, ten miles north of Asten, with 319 HQ in a slaughterhouse east of the town. On the 28th, Five ME 109s were engaged near Bakel. Guns also took part in night barrages on the German lines. Four days later, with RHQ at Heuman, five miles south of Nijmegen, 317 Battery and D Troop of 318 crossed the Maas at Grave and went into action on the edge of the Reichswald Forest. The remainder of the regiment, 319 and F Troop of 318, was deployed west of the Maas in the neighbourhood of Mil, Haps and Beer.
In early October, the regiment encountered the worst enemy air activity since Caen, fighting off daily attacks by ME 109s. On the 5th came their first encounter with an ME 262, the Germans’ new jet-propelled plane. ‘It became involved with some Spitfires over Nijmegen and showed them a clean pair of heels as far as Heuman, where it banked sharply to starboard,’ wrote Captain Almond.
‘As it banked, it exposed its belly to D Troop, which was deployed in defence of divisional HQ. Three guns fired at very short range and a burst of four rounds entered the aircraft. It was observed to stagger violently, then endeavoured to gain height in the direction of Grave. D Troop guns broke off their engagement, as the Spitfires were now hot on the trail again and indeed closed with the 262, pouring rounds into it. The plane crashed near Grave and the pilot was killed in a vain attempt to parachute.’
Soon after, F Troop brought down an ME 109 whose pilot parachuted into captivity near Overloon. Next day, the same unit destroyed another ME 109 as it made a low-level strafing attack in the Oefellt-Gennep area. On the 12th, as ME 262s and a JU 88 raided the regimental area, 92nd LAA added its firepower to a massive artillery barrage in support of 3rd Division troops who were battling to capture Overloon in Operation Aintree.
Jim Holder-Vale was the radio operator for six of the regiment’s guns, which were sited in front of a nunnery as part of the huge operation. ‘We knew there was going to be an enormous barrage put down, with all 3rd Division artillery and a lot more besides and we were rather concerned for an elderly nun we saw on the roof, replacing tiles,’ Jim recalled.
‘When it was suggested that we should tell her to come down, the officer in charge said No. But he was ignored and the nun was persuaded to get off the roof. Soon after, the barrage erupted with an enormous crash.
‘Unfortunately, the Auster spotter plane in front of us was hit by a shell fired by our heavy artillery further back. The plane disintegrated and fell to earth – a very sad thing to watch.’
During the Overloon operation, the 92nd LAA guns unleashed 1,800 rounds. ‘Afterwards, we moved into what remained of the place,’ said Jim. ‘It was an absolute shambles, littered with vast amounts of unexploded artillery shells and anti-personnel bombs. There were also a number of shell-shocked chickens which were rounded up and eaten.
‘My wireless was set up in a small cellar and the remains of a building which contained the corpses of two pigs. This didn’t bother us, as it was a safe haven from the shelling and rocket mortars – nebelwerfers, or moaning minnies. It rained a lot and was very cold. There was a poor horse wandering around which was eventually killed during the shelling. As the corpse lay near our HQ, we were detailed to bury it. Fortunately, the ground was very soft – like black sand – so we just piled it up over the body, leaving the four hooves exposed. After a while, the hooves fell off.’
Four days later, amid very bad weather, the Bofors of 92nd LAA again opened up to help the attack continue on to Venraij. By this time, after the failure of Market Garden, enemy resistance had hardened. Montgomery decided not to attempt a crossing of the Rhine that autumn, but to concentrate on clearing the port of Antwerp. So 3rd Division was withdrawn across the Maas and on October 15, the 92nd established its RHQ at Oploo, where the regiment was destined to remain for the next four months.
But drama and death were never far away. On the 25th, ‘buzz-bomb’ V-1 rockets were spotted heading west. Two days later, Bombardier John Nicholson of the counter-mortar unit was killed by a shell. On October 31, Gunner John Rowland of 319 died and Bombardier Philip Gregg was wounded when two 108mm shells hit I Troop billet area. The ‘calmness and initiative’ of Gunner J Smith while attending the wounded bombardier during this attack earned him a commendation from the divisional commander.
Gunner Rowland, from Runcorn, Cheshire, died heroically. The 31-year-old tannery worker, a Cheshire bowls champion, had joined up at Caernarvon in 1940 along with his brothers – one brother, Sam, served with him in 319 Battery. Back home, Gunner Rowland had a young wife and a new baby, their first child. His grandson, Jamie Rowland, told the story of his death that was later given to his family:
‘Around 10pm, a Captain Chubb wasspying out a German machine gun nest orposition when he got wounded in the leg and started crying out for help. Well, some of the fellows in the unit said, “Leave him there” – but my granddad said, “We can’t” and volunteered to go out and get him with his brother Sam, using a stretcher.
‘Well, they put Chubb on the stretcher and proceeded to carry him to safety when Sam – who was younger than granddad – started to complain to my grandad that Captain Chubb’s head and upper body were too heavy to carry and asked my granddad to swop positions on the stretcher. So my granddad agreed and they swopped.
‘When my granddad and Sam were bending down and were just lifting up the stretcher, that’s when my granddad was hit with shrapnel right through his chest. The force of the impact also blew his boots off. All the lads in the unit got their first aid kits out and and tried to pack the wound with cotton wool, but there wasn’t enough cotton wool even from all the fellows to stop the bleeding. The shrapnel had left a huge hole straight through his chest and out the other side.
‘He lived for about 30 seconds, in which he said to his brother, “Look after John” (my dad) and then he died. After the event, my Nan said that all the blokes in the unit were annoyed, as Captain Chubb received an award for bravery – the fellows thought that it should have gone to my granddad, who gave his life saving Chubb.
‘After the war, my Nan was visited by one of the lads from the unit. He told her that my granddad was a popular guy among the lads and that he used to entertain them singing – I have heard he had a great singing voice. He also said he loved the Scouse sense of humour and he and his mates in the unit used to play pranks. My Nan was also resentful after the war because she said out of his service money the Army charged her for burial and other things.’
The 92nd’s time in Holland brought a brush with death for George Baker, who was now driving a truck with one of the regimental counter-mortar units. Although only lightly armed, these six-man outfits often had the unenviable task of venturing into No Man’s Land – ahead even of the infantry – to try to get a fix on enemy artillery positions.
On this occasion, the soldiers were on standby in the cellar of a ruined house a few hundred yards from the German front line and George was upstairs keeping watch on the enemy positions through a hole in the wall.
As dawn was breaking, he got a call from his comrades to come downstairs for a welcome cup of tea. ‘As I turned and started walking down the steps – whoosh! A shell came right through the opening in the wall where I had been standing a second or two earlier,’ said George. ‘The opening had been shelled earlier on and the Germans must have had their field glasses on it. I was very lucky.’
Another drama came when George was on counter-mortar duty with Lieutenant ‘Dizzy’ Marsh. The Jeep in which they and two others were travelling down a country lane came under fire and they scrambled out to take cover. George found refuge under a hedge and the two others squeezed between the deep furrows of a field.
The lieutenant dived head-first into what looked like a slit trench. Some time later, when all was clear, they emerged from their hiding places. But when Lieutenant Marsh crawled out of his ‘slit trench’ it was immediately obvious that he had in fact plunged into a well-used German latrine. ‘He was covered head to toe,’ said George. ‘He had a trench coat on, but he never even took it off. We got back in the Jeep and drove off. The smell was terrible.’
When Jim Holder-Vale became wireless operator to Jack Prior, the regimental Intelligence Officer, he also found venturing out on the roads could be more than a little hazardous. ‘Jack always drove our wireless truck and I travelled in the passenger seat,’ Jim recalled. ‘One evening we were driving back from visiting another unit when I noticed there were no longer unit signs at the side of the road.
‘Such signs indicated a unit’s location day or night and were made from Army biscuit tins. Those for the 92nd had the upper section of the four sides painted red and the lower blue, indicating artillery with the number 47 superimposed in white. The figures were outlined with punched holes so that at night they could be seen when a lighted paraffin lamp was put inside the upturned tin. I think by now Jack realised we were lost and drove very slowly. Then I saw in the ditch beside us a group of blacked-up soldiers who were obviously a patrol about to enter the German positions. We stopped and were told in whispers to “bugger off”, as the Germans were only minutes away along the road!’
At the end of the month, 8 Corps, on 21st Army Group’s right flank, had to extend its front and B, D and F Troops went into the line as infantry, forming platoons to hold a sector of the Maas at Groeningen. There was sporadic shelling and mortaring, plus ‘intense and exciting’ night patrols, but no contact with the enemy.
‘It was scary, but I enjoyed this challenge,’ said Len Harvey. ‘Night patrols were a bit nervy, but after a while, we took them in our stride. Having the river between us and the Germans was a good line of defence. If the river had not been there, it might have been a different experience.’
Bill Wills also recalled that this period of holding the Maas line was nerve-racking. ‘We were mortared every night. The Germans knew where we were, but they never attacked directly.’
As November opened, torrential rain turned highways to mudbaths and men were put on road works to maintain communications. On the 10th, Lieutenant Roberts of 317 was wounded for the second time when a truck in which he was travelling ran over a mine. An NCO was also hurt.
The regiment provided parties for mine-lifting in the wooded areas of Overloon, Venraij and Horst. ‘We had taken a keen interest in mines whilst training in the UK and special teams were ready to deal with major commitments of this sort,’ wrote Captain Almond. ‘We had no casualties in minelifting throughout the whole of the campaign.’
The 92nd took part in several ground shoots and night barrages, but some operations had to be cancelled because of the weather. Section shoots across the Maas, targeting German billets, strongpoints and particularly meal parades, were popular. ‘This enthusiasm was not always shared by neighbouring units, as our fire sometimes drew angry reprisals, which usually arrived just after the guns had gone out of action and retired to their anti-aircraft pits.’
The regiment’s stay in Holland also brought home to the men that as well as fighting the Germans, they were liberating a conquered people. Jack Prior recalled an incident in September 1944 when one of the 92nd’s petrol cookers exploded in the built-in barn of a farm. ‘The barn and attached living accommodation were destroyed and Peter Crane and I organised salvage teams, rescuing as much as possible – saving the occupants, animals and some of the furniture. But it was a fairly hopeless task to save any of the buildings.
‘In due course, there would have been a degree of recompense from the British government. But to me the most embarrassing aspect was that the farmer and his family did not castigate us, but were quite phlegmatic about it, making clear that they still preferred to have us there than the Germans.’
For the 92nd LAA men, it was now a case of waiting through the winter until the war started in earnest again. And, as they settled into their vigil along the Maas, they could turn some of their energies to the ever-important matter of food.
Gunner Henry Woodall of D Troop, one of the original Liverpool recruits who joined up with 7th Loyals in 1940, described how he and his comrades enjoyed a real bonus in this respect.
On November 19, he wrote home to his wife: ‘Just to make your teeth water, Hon, we’re having pork and chicken tomorrow for dinner. One of the lads killed one of the pigs that were running around the village here and Ginger Smith knecked a couple of hens, so I can see us having a few slap-up Xmas dinners while we’re here. So here’s hoping the cook makes a good job of it, so cheerio for now ...’
As 1944 drew to a close, there were frequent sightings of vapour trails from rockets, believed to be V-2s, and engagements with ME 262s around Oploo and Venraij. Towards the end of November, the Germans remaining west of the Maas started pulling back and by the beginning of December, 3rd Division had cleared the area to the river line, holding a 20-mile front between Boxmeer and Grubbenvorst.
As December opened, it was decided that only two 92nd batteries should be kept at readiness in defence of local areas while one took turns to stand down. Several younger men in the regiment were marked for transferral to the infantry. On the 5th, a 15cwt truck of 319 was destroyed when it strayed into a minefield after the white marker tapes had blown down. One officer suffered superficial injuries.
Regimental HQ moved to St Anthonis on December 8. Three days later, Major Crane was invested with the Military Cross by Montgomery in recognition of his heroism during the sinking of the Sambut on D-Day, when he saved many men by his calm and resolute action.
Throughout the month, rocket sightings continued. There was a mass raid by 18 ME 109s and eleven ME 262s on the 17th, with two hits claimed. Next day, 13 ME 262s were engaged, with one hit claimed. That same day, HQ moved to Leunen and on Christmas Eve an unusual prisoner was taken – a German carrier pigeon. The message it carried was indecipherable and it was handed over to divisional HQ.
Christmas Day, which dawned bitterly cold with the temperature down to minus 12F, was marked in as festive a mood as possible. 318 took dinner in a decorated barn, followed by a sing-song around a borrowed piano. ‘It was our sixth war Christmas, but it was the view of everyone that it was the best of the six, which says much considering it was our first in the line,’ the war diary noted.
The troops also laid on a party for Dutch children in the Venraij area. ‘That went down well,’ said Len Harvey. ‘We used our corned beef, sardines, coffee, sweets and chocolate. They went home happy. They had never experienced anything like it. In the evening, we got together with the mums and dads and had a good Christmas drink. For them, it was fantastic because the Germans didn’t look after the Dutch very well. In fact, in northern Holland, the people were starving.’
Further south in the Ardennes, it was the height of the dramatic German counter-offensive, aiming to split the Allied armies in two. Traditionally at Christmas, British officers act as servants to their men during the festive meal. Leo McCarthy used to tell how on Christmas Day 1944 he was brought a drink by an officer – but, uncharacteristically, he refused it. With all that was going on in the Ardennes, he explained, he wanted to stay alert.
Jim Holder-Vale did accept a drink on Christmas Eve and regretted it. ‘For the first time in my life I got drunk,’ he recalled. ‘Someone gave me a mug full of Calvados, but I wasn’t a drinker. However, I drank it – and I had to be helped to bed.’
But it didn’t end there. Next morning, Jim woke to find Jack Prior had turned up with a bottle of champagne. ‘Jack wasn’t a drinker and I don’t know where he got the champagne from. He even had glasses. We all had a glass of champagne, then later I had to go to the MO to get something for my head!’
On Boxing Day, 340 enemy aircraft were spotted approaching the corps area from the north-east, but there was no attack. On New Year’s Eve, as snow swept Holland, a German plane crashed on the east bank of the Maas, but its crew was recovered by a Wehrmacht patrol.
By the end of the year, 92nd LAA had engaged enemy aircraft on 93 occasions, firing 14,047 rounds of 40mm and 8,687 rounds of 20mm. It had 33 Category One claims, including 13 shared. Some 5,826 rounds of 40mm had been fired on ground targets.